Mentorship can help our young journalists handle sudden fame

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Esther Adongo Arunga was the ultimate media personality. She was a splendid combination of beauty, intelligence and confidence.

Whenever she came into the room, people would simply drop everything they were doing to be dazzled by her queenly beauty. Esther Arunga was a beautiful and brilliant creature, her perfection was peerless and everyone, including I, truly and deeply admired her.

Esther was at the height of her glory when her life suddenly took a dangerously wrong turn. It began with her joining a young group of Christian professionals that met regularly to discuss Christianity and religion at the workplace.

What began as a harmless gathering of like-minded youngsters morphed into an ugly scene that saw Esther hook up with a dubious character by the name Quincy Timberlake.

I never quite understood Quincy Timberlake. He had this West African-cum-Congolese musician vibe and squinty eyes that gave him a very unsettling look. But Esther was hooked. By then, she had joined a church with an eerie name – Finger of God – with cultish tendencies like the absolute fixation and obsession with their avuncular leader, Jazz musician Joseph Hellon.

Her family watched in horror as Esther plunged into a bizarre, soap-opera like drama that saw her sue her parents for allegedly trying to break her marriage. It was clear that this was no longer an excusable swerve from the path of light, but a significant veer into the slippery path of self-destruction and self-sabotage.

When it became clear that there was no turning back, she packed her bags and left for Australia where she would begin a new life with her husband.

In a profoundly sad sense, Esther left when the applause was loudest. She abandoned the project that was her life when things were beginning to look up for her. Until tragedy struck.

What began as laughable drama involving a young TV presenter hooking up with the wrong man ended with the brutal death of a child in the most unlikely of hands; that of his parents.

The past five years, understandably, have probably been the worst yet for Esther. The death of her son, coupled with the separation from her two daughters, a husband incarcerated and public shame. Until Thursday, it was clear that Esther would be jailed for being an accessory to the murder of her son by covering up for her husband who beat up the child, inflicting injuries that led to its death.

But even as we collectively breathe a sigh of relief as Esther evades jail (she was handed a ten-month term on parole), what should not be lost on us is the very important lesson glaring at us here.

Part of the reason why Esther, a promising young female journalist who lost traction from being the news reader to the news maker was that she lacked a very important component in her professional life – mentorship.

Now, I know I have in the past expressed my reservations on the meaningless mentorship that is limited to young women gathering in a hotel room to be told what we already know – believe in yourself. What I am talking about here today is a different kind of mentorship that I am almost certain if Esther received, she would have been on a different path today.

When a young, attractive and fairly successful young woman in the media suddenly becomes famous, they are vulnerable to all manner of pitfalls, traps and hazards. If they are not a solid individual, grounded on some principles and values, they become targets for manipulation and deception. They are surrounded by fake, predatory friends who use them for social capital.

It is worse when these young stars are women because they are bombarded with offers from all manner of shady characters with ulterior motives – including politicians, businessmen and ‘fans’.

Their lives are on the radar, the pressure to impress is immense and many of them are living lives they could barely afford. It takes one slip, one misstep, one bad relationship, one sour marriage to bring the house of cards tumbling down.

Which brings me to my point; we need to think seriously about mentorship for young journalists. Not through superficial pep talks but by creating a network of older, seasoned journalists to hold them accountable. We need to help them access a system of solid advisors, supporters and counsellors who will call them out on their claptrap while providing support in this age when online harassment of journalists is at an all-time high. This rarely happens even in Western journalism, but we can start small.

Let me begin by throwing a challenge to “seniors” in the profession – reach out to that young and promising journalist or editor and assure them that they have somebody to talk to when they need one.

Because the media can be a tough and slippery profession.

Ms Chege is the director, Innovation Centre, Aga Khan Universuty Graduate School of Media and Communications; [email protected]

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